To Listen to the Voice of God

St. Catherine of Siena, by Baldassare Franceschini (17th century).

We all have a desire to be listened to and taken seriously. There is nothing more frustrating than not being listened to, when someone does not either look at us when we talk to him, or let us finish our sentences. It leaves us feeling unsatisfied and frustrated, and we feel we have not had our point of view heard or considered. One of the consequences of not being listened to is that we will not be understood. If someone does not listen to what we have to say in relation to everyday mundane issues, from ordering something over the telephone, to more serious personal issues, then the issues will remain unresolved. The world is full of daily misunderstandings because, in the majority of instances, people do not listen to what the other person is saying. If they do listen and hear what the other person is saying, it may be interpreted incorrectly. It is easy to hear what we want to hear, and then to selectively ignore what does not fit in with our worldview or personal preference. The desire to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood is innate to us all. It is a universal desire, and it is also what God desires. He has placed his own desire in our hearts so that it can be fulfilled. We are only really able to hear what our neighbor says with the help of God’s grace, which frees us from the chains of sin. Sin clutters our heart and muffles our hearing so that we cannot hear what others say clearly, tainted with our own opinions, desires, and attitudes.

One fruit of listening to our neighbors is following their advice when they have told us our shortcomings and failings. We can then ask for the help we need to overcome these faults and make positive changes in our life. It is the same with God; he wants us to listen to his voice which mysteriously reveals to us our imperfections and weaknesses. He also inspires us to seek, and ask for his help. God’s greatest desire is that we let him become more, and we become less. “He must grow greater, I must grow less” (Jn 3:30).

God desires that we hear his voice above the din of everyday life. We can only begin to do this when we invite him to become the center of our lives through daily prayer. He will speak to us through his revealed word in the Gospels, through our conscience, the inspirations that flood our mind with holy thoughts, and the recurring desires that he places in our heart. We can also sometimes hear the voice of God through our neighbor, who advises us of our faults and imperfections. The self-knowledge we gain from our everyday interactions can bring us to know ourselves more fully in the light of God’s all-encompassing, merciful love. The reality is, however, that because of our sinful nature, we are often not likely to hear the voice of God, but rather a distorted version that fits our own desire for praise and glory. If we are honest, we admit that we do not really want to hear the truth, but rather what affirms our self-image. It is more comfortable to believe that we fully know ourselves. But, while we may fail to listen to God and discern his voice clearly, listening to him is all that really counts. Fortunately, God is infinitely patient and provides us with numerous opportunities to hear his voice.

To truly be able to hear God’s voice, we must repent and allow our souls to be healed of all sin, and attachment to sin. As this is a lifelong process—day by day, and moment by moment—we must respond to God’s grace, and recognize that God is “before” the beginning of our desires to seek his kingdom, as well as their complete fulfilment. In other words, the desire to seek the truth and the will to do what is good is hidden in the depths of our souls before we are consciously aware of it. We naturally think that it is our desire, but it is God’s grace that has placed these desires in our heart. As God breathed our soul into our human nature when we were first conceived, our soul mirrors his qualities of goodness, love, truth, and beauty. We are made in his image and likeness. But we only become like him when we respond to his grace and, so, begin gradually to assimilate his virtue. It is his grace that sustains and strengthens us to bring to fruition what we often attribute to ourselves! As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes, God’s mercy goes before us in everything we do, follows us as we are healed, and gives us new life in Christ.

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him, we can do nothing.1

The desire to be charitable on all levels, the ability to see the opportunities, and once seen, the strength to be generous, kind, forgiving, and merciful is only possible and sustainable through God’s grace. As the Catechism cites in the passage above, we can do nothing without his help. “Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 5). We may have a vague desire to be charitable to others, but will miss the opportunities that are presented to us. To be aware of missed opportunities and our lack of charity is the beginning of our path of love, but we must first experience imperfect love before recognizing what perfect love really looks like.

When we feel we are really being really listened to, it’s as if the person listening to us is experiencing our same sorrow or joy, almost as if he has been in the same situation. The listener will inevitably have had a similar experience, and the recalling of this in his memory enables him to display a real understanding of what we are experiencing. This display of understanding along with attentive listening enables us to feel as if we are really being listened to, and, consequently, understood. Our neighbor, who empathizes with us through their attentive listening and display of understanding, may have shared a similar problem or moment of happiness. They may have shared the same category of problem as ours or, upon hearing it described, even had an identical problem to ours. But our uniqueness means the personal experience of the problem will be different, as only we walk the path and encounter the people in the various situations life places before us. But Christ empathizes with us perfectly, as he holds in his heart the most intimate concern for every soul who has ever been born. The Sacred Heart of Christ longs for us to share all our worries and problems with him. He listens attentively and understands perfectly, anticipating our silent sighs by responding with his consoling grace that will heal our wounded heart.

The Sorrow for Sin

Although our neighbor can empathize with us and, as a result, we feel understood, we are not transformed interiorly by the person listening to us, nor do we become one with him. That is the radical difference between our human neighbor and God. To listen to God’s voice is to share intimately with his divine nature and, so, be transformed interiorly in the depths of our souls. Those who are closest to Christ listen attentively to his voice and share intimately with his experience of joy and sorrow. In the case of the saints’ experience of sorrow, it’s as if they become Christ themselves on the cross, experiencing sorrow for sin, the horror and insult it causes his Father, and the harm it causes to souls. This sorrow is much deeper and permanent than that experienced on a purely human level. It is also not connected solely to a time bound and specific human event. Because of the divinity of Christ, his personal experience within his sacred humanity, while temporary and time bound, transcends time and space. The deep sorrow of the saints is experienced as an expression of Christ again suffering his passion; it is he himself who is suffering within them. The glorified Christ can no longer suffer here on earth. The saints “lend” him their heart, enabling Christ to suffer in and through them to the Father, and so offer a pure act of love. We are all called to share Christ’s sorrow where, to the extent we are one with his heart, we suffer his sorrow for sin. A truly surprising and unexpected fruit of listening to our Lord is to share intimately with his sorrows. We may have a fleeting or temporary experience of this sorrow for sin, but the worries of everyday life and other concerns mean that this will more likely only be experienced briefly.

One of the fruits of listening to God’s voice is that our listening becomes the continual receiving of God’s love in our soul, so that all the wordless desires and intentions we make are inspired, sustained, and mysteriously expressed by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit fills up what our prayers lack, and when we do not know how to pray properly: “… the Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words” (Rom 8:26). St. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue sheds light on the mystery of St. Paul’s words when she describes how the Holy Spirit groans within the soul who is consumed with love, offering to God “the fragrance of holy desire and constant humble prayer.”

There is a weeping of fire, of truly holy longing, and it consumes in love. Such a soul would like to dissolve her very life in weeping in self-contempt and for the salvation of souls, but she seems unable to do it. I tell you, these souls have tears of fire. In this fire, the Holy Spirit weeps in my presence for them and for their neighbours. I mean that my divine charity sets ablaze with its flame the soul who offers me her restless longing without physical tears. These, I tell you, are tears of fire, and this is how the Holy Spirit weeps. Since the soul cannot do it with tears, she offers her desire to weep for love of me. And if you open your mind’s eye, you will see that the Holy Spirit weeps in the person of every one of my servants who offers me the fragrance of holy desire and constant humble prayer. This, it seems, is what the glorious Apostle Paul meant when he said that the Holy Spirit weeps before me, the Father, “with unspeakable groaning” for you.2

This extraordinary passage describes how a soul set ablaze interiorly by the Holy Spirit weeps tears of fire in God’s presence. Unable to shed physical tears expressing one’s love for God and souls, the Holy Spirit weeps inside the person offering to the Father the soul’s restless longing and humble prayer.

The Holy Spirit can teach us how sin is an infinite offense against our Father in heaven—who is goodness and love itself—as well as the harm sin causes our soul. Significantly, the spirit of love and truth can teach us the sorrow experienced by Jesus by understanding dimly how our neighbors’ sins also offend God greatly, and how they endanger our neighbors’ salvation. St. Catherine describes how God permits his closest followers to be persecuted, so that the “fire of charity grows in the soul who has compassion for the soul of her abuser.”

Patience is proved in the assaults and weariness I allow my servants, and the fire of charity grows in the soul who has compassion for the soul of her abuser. For she grieves more over the offense done to me and the harm done to the other than over her own hurt. This is how these behave who are very perfect, and so they grow. And this is why I permit all these things. I grant them a stinging hunger for the salvation of souls, so that they knock day and night at the door of my mercy, so much so, that they forget themselves (as I described for you in the state of the perfect). And the more they abandon themselves, the more they find me.3

To “knock day and night at the door of my mercy” is to “knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). The great mystery of God’s providence is evident when those closest to Christ are knocking at the door of his mercy so that his graces be showered onto their persecutor. The fire of charity which grows in the souls of those who share most intimately with Christ’s sufferings, enables them to pray with Christ on the cross at Calvary, as he prayed for his persecutors. We, also, are called to pray for those who persecute us: “But I say this to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Not only are we called to pray for those who persecute us, but also for nonbelievers. We are invited to join our prayers with Jesus, who continually intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father, and knock, so that the door of nonbelievers’ souls will be opened by God’s grace, bringing them to repentance and conversion of heart. As Jesus described to St. Faustina, the prayer most pleasing to him is prayer for the conversion of nonbelievers.

Today I heard a voice in my soul: The loss of each soul plunges me into mortal sadness. You always console Me when you pray for sinners. The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners. Know, My daughter, that this prayer is always heard and answered.4

The souls who are very perfect, as described by St. Catherine, share most intimately in the sorrows of Christ. In loving much, they will have great sorrow.

And because they have come to know so much of me, they love me much. And, whoever loves much, will have great sorrow; therefore those whose love grows will know more sorrow.5

They share in Christ’s thirst for souls, knocking at the gates of heaven for the salvation of those caught up in deadly sin. The thirst for Christ is lived out perpetually in souls who are transformed through the grace of the Holy Spirit to come closer to resembling the interior life of our Savior. Their sorrow is an otherworldly sorrow, in which the divine spirit has fully transformed not only their sorrow, but the other principal emotions of fear, joy, and hope. With a holy fear and reverence for God, the souls experience sorrow as they grieve only for the offenses committed against God. Their greatest hope is to win souls for our Father in heaven. In their experience of being loved by God and in their knowledge of his immense love for mankind, their joy surpasses all the tribulations and trials the world can send. Their otherworldly joy enables them to love their neighbors as God does, vividly seeing their beauty through contemplating them as unique reflections of their divine creator.

They grieve only for offenses committed against me, for they see how deserving I am of love and service. And they grieve for the harm that comes to souls when they see them walking so blindly through the world’s darkness. For in their loving union with me, they have contemplated and known how ineffably I love my creatures, seeing how they reflect my likeness, and they have fallen in love with my creatures’ beauty for love of me. Therefore, they feel unbearable sorrow when they see them straying from my goodness. These sufferings are so great, that they make every other suffering diminish in them until they regard nothing as being done to themselves.6

Here we see how those closest to Christ share most intimately in his sufferings. He fills their hearts with the deep sorrow that he himself experienced at the sight of sinful hearts that have rejected his love. Yet the pain of Christ surpasses that of all the saints. He lives out this pain mystically in his saints, as he fills their hearts not only with his sorrow, but also with the burning desire that he himself experienced for the salvation of souls. The saints set their hope on our heavenly Father, “prodded by burning desire” to cry out to him for souls who are in most need of help. Filled with the Father’s own heavenly desire, they mirror his Son as he cried out on the cross: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

Then, prodded by burning desire, they cry out to me in firm hope and with the light of most holy faith, asking my help in such great need. Thus my divine providence sees, at one and the same time, to the help of the world by letting myself be constrained by my servants’ sorrowful, tender, restless longing, and to their own nurturing and growth in this way to greater and more perfect knowledge and union with me.7

The journey of listening to the voice of God can be a truly remarkable one. Ultimately, we are all called to imitate the saints who knocked at the door of Christ’s heart; not only for their own spiritual needs, but also significantly for the needs of their brothers and sisters. We are invited by Christ to pray with him and all the angels and saints to the Father for the conversion of nonbelievers and for those who persecute us. The power of prayer in helping all our brothers and sisters who make up God’s family will only be truly understood in heaven.

  1. Catechism No 2001
  2. Catherine of Siena The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. Paulist Press New York, 1980, p 169
  3. Ibid: p 304
  4. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul. Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2005, Entry 1397  pp  497-498
  5. Catherine of Siena The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. Paulist Press New York, 1980, p 306
  6. Ibid: p 306
  7. Ibid: p 306
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.